Zelensky wants to establish ‘dictatorship’ says Ukrainian opposition leader, as Kiev bids to put him behind bars on terror charges

Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of Ukraine’s largest opposition party, has accused the country’s president of trying to establish a dictatorship, after the government shuttered media outlets and unveiled sanctions against politicians.

On Friday evening, the country’s National Security and Defense Council announced that it would impose a package of measures against seven people and 19 legal entities, including the multimillionaire MP, for allegedly financing terrorism. The body’s secretary, Alexei Danilov, told journalists that the sanctions would affect “all the property that Mr Medvedchuk owns,” as well as any assets belonging to his wife, Oksana. Five aircraft that fly between Moscow and Kiev will also face restrictions.

Writing on his official website, Medvedchuk said that “the government took the path of establishing a dictatorship and usurping power, seeking to crack down on the parliamentary opposition legally elected by the Ukrainian people.”

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“As an expert in the field of law,” he added, “I can say: all those sanctions that are imposed by the current government in relation to me, my family, my associates and journalists are illegal, and cannot be applied otherwise than by a court decision.”

The nature of the terrorism-financing charges is unclear, but the article of the Criminal Code of Ukraine cited by the Security Council carries a term in prison of between 10-12 years, as well as a potential ban from public office.

Volodymyr Ischenko, a research fellow at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, wrote on Twitter that the government had made the move “without any evidence made public, hardly any serious investigation, and without any court decision.” He added that “The way Western media do NOT cover, or even explicitly justify the repression of the opposition in Ukraine, is totally shameful.”

Earlier this month, a row broke out in Kiev after President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree banning a total of eight opposition-owned news organizations. It was signed off by the country’s National Security and Defense Council, and saw three channels taken off-air almost immediately.

The 1+1 media group that owns the outlets belongs to opposition politician Taras Kozak, a member of Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform–For Life (OPZZh) grouping in the national parliament. At the time, Medvedchuk wrote that the suppression of critical media was “absolutely illegal” and amounted to the use of “violence, bullying and coercion against dissent.”

Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, sought to justify the move, saying that “it’s clear that sanctions on Mr. Medvedchuk’s TV channels are not about the media and not about freedom of speech… it’s just about effectively countering fakes and foreign propaganda.” Without action, he argued, the opposition media would “kill our values.”

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However, the vast majority of programming affected by the ban was produced in Ukraine, by Ukrainians and for a domestic audience of Russian-speakers. Around a third of those living in the nation speak Russian as their mother tongue. While some had sought to portray the media empire as oligarch-controlled, almost all news channels in the country are owned by wealthy individuals, including those that supported Zelensky’s bid for the presidency.

In response to the decision, OPZZh announced that it would move forward with a proposed impeachment of Zelensky. Vadim Rabinovich, co-chairman of the bloc, told the plenary session of the country’s parliament, “We are initiating the impeachment procedure for the president.”

Research by the Kiev International institute of Sociology in January found that fewer than one in five Ukrainians support Zelensky, with his support also plummeting in polls since he cam to power with over 73 per cent of the vote in 2019. As well as a battle with the country’s constitutional court over anti-corruption measures, the president has faced staunch criticism from Medvedchuk over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and his refusal to allow access to Russian-made vaccines.

The poll put Medvedchuk’s party in the lead, with almost twice as many respondents saying they would vote for OPZZh than for Zelensky’s Servant of the People grouping.

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